“Truly learning about an object requires going beyond what the eye can see,” said Lisa Conte, Head of Conservation at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, at the 31st Scolari Barr Lecture in the Fine Arts. The lecture, an annual speaker series in the Upper School, was established by the Class of 1964 to honor the legacy of Margaret Scolari Barr, who taught art history at Spence from 1943 to 1980. “She was an inspiration in the lives of many of our alumnae, and now, through this very lecture, in the lives of our students here today,” said Head of School Bodie Brizendine in her opening remarks. Several members of the Class of 1964, including Joan Mertens, Greek and Roman Art Curator at The Met who helps guide the selection of the Scolari Barr presenters, attended the lecture.
Conte was introduced by Isabel B. ’20, who shared information about Conte’s career as a conservator, from working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the conservation of a collection of Émile Gilliéron’s watercolors to her efforts to preserve contemporary drawings and prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Her “current research is focused on the slurry wall, a section of the underground foundation at the original World Trade Center,” Isabel explained. “While working on the conservation of this integral part of the museum, Ms. Conte collaborates with engineers, curators, architects and conservators to create a conservation strategy.” In connection with this work, Conte also-produced Memory Foundations, a short film about the Slurry Wall’s history.
Conte’s Scolari presentation, entitled “Bathtubs and Conservators: From Works on Paper to the World Trade Center,” shed light on the complexities of restoration and conservation.
She explained that there are both passive and interventive methods to preserve objects. Passive methods “aim to reduce damage to collections by improving their environment.” Interventive methods of conservation involve treatment techniques such as surface cleaning and the reduction of surface mold. Learning about the object’s history helps conservators decide which methods to use, Conte explained.
Following the lecture, students had the opportunity to ask a variety of questions about Conte’s work.
“How do you not rip the paper when you ‘give it a bath’?” one student wanted to know.
“Paper does weaken when it’s wet,” Conte explained, noting that a non-woven polyester support can be used beneath papers to give them enough strength to be held “safely and securely” when they’re being washed.
Another student was curious about how conservators decide which historical preservation methods to use when they uncover an object.
Conservators “have to weigh what the value of the artifact is in the context of their approach to treatment,” Conte replied, noting that it is important to ensure that the cleaning process does not strip a work of art of its intended aesthetic. “When cleaning is the part of the conservation regimen for a work of art, the possible removal of its signs of history must carefully be considered.”
“Having the opportunity to learn all about an object’s material, cultural and historical value is one of the great privileges and responsibilities of being a conservator.”
The Margaret Scolari Barr Lecture Fund was established by the Class of 1964 after its 25th reunion. The Spence School would like to thank Met Curator Joan Mertens ’64, who each year guides the program selection for the Margaret Scolari Barr Lecture.